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Colours: Racism - What has it got to do with me?


An intelligent young man, Stephen Lawrence, is kicked and beaten to death on a London street by white youngsters, just because he happens to be black. Policemen, who might have saved his life, also fail to arrest his killers, because of incompetence and insensitivity, due to racism. The parents of the dead boy, in pursuing justice with determination and dignity, touch the nation's conscience. A judge leads an inquiry and writes a report on these events, that calls for changes in the law and changes in attitudes and policy in the police and other bodies with regard to `institutionalised racism'. What has it got to do with me?

Over decades similar events have taken place in British cities, reports have been written, judges have spoken. Is there really going to be a difference this time? The answer depends on what I do about it; what you do about it; what choices hundreds and thousands of people make in their hearts, those who wield power and authority and those living in communities up and down the country, prepared to pay the price of change in their own lives and attitudes first and then working to bring change to structures that perpetuate injustice. It will require courage and vision. For the issue of race is not going to go away.

In all the sixteen years I lived and worked in Africa, I was never once made to feel unwelcome. Yet it pains me deeply to find in Liverpool, where I live, people born here, whose ancestors were African, being made to feel less than welcome, treated like second class citizens, in what is their homeland, some third and fourth generation British.

The native American people have a saying `Walk a mile in another person's moccasins'. That is not easy when trying to live into the painful reality of racism and subtle discrimination that some people experience from the moment they leave their home till they return at night. `Will I be rejected, patronised, stereotyped, undervalued? That feeling of fear.' It is impossible for a white middle class person like me to understand what black people who experience racism go through. I can empathise, yes, but not fully understand. However I can commit myself to do something about it. For God's sake, let's grasp this window of opportunity, putting an end to the nightmares of the few, who have to suffer these injustices, and turn what Martin Luther King called `a dream' into a reality.

First it requires an acknowledgement of the past; second, personal commitment; and third, a commitment at executive and policy level to bring about change.

The legacy of history is intimately related to this whole issue of racism. One thing I learned during my years in Africa was the greatness of Africa's past and the dignity of her people. When we in England were running around naked painting ourselves in woad, there was a great university in Timbuktu with a library and distinguished scholars from North Africa. In the early sixteenth century the King of Benin had an Ambassador at the court of the King of Portugal, treated with honour and respect. Different but equal. There is much more that could be told to destroy some of the myths of `the dark continent' with which so many of us grew up. What happened to conveniently rob Africa of her history?

Racism, in its worst form, was born out of a manipulation of race to ensure dominance. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, as a direct result of imperial conquest and the Atlantic slave trade, some people chose to engender a great lie to justify these twin evils in order to pursue selfish gain. It was no longer different but equal; rather, inferior and some even saying `less than human'. Others, through ignorance or indifference, accepted the lie.

This is all too obvious when one reads extracts from the Liverpool press at the height of the slave trade; no coincidence when Liverpool shipowners were financing forty percent of the European ships that plied that trade and sponsored an MP to combat Wilberforce, the leader of `the abolitionists' in the House of Commons.

I have been to Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and to Badagry in Nigeria. I have seen the chains which shackled slaves before they were put on the slave ships. I stood on the wharf in Richmond, Virginia, in the U.S. where 50% of the slaves brought to that country were disembarked. Between 12 and 20 million people were transported to the Americas in horrific conditions--something like 2 million dying in the Middle Passage.

On top of that was the arrogance and legacy of colonialism and imperialism. As Sir Conrad Hunte, the international cricketer from Barbados once put it, `some people treated like Gods and some people treated like dogs', which helped to nurture wrong attitudes that continue to this day and that show themselves in both overt and covert racial discrimination. Some people say, `Why rake up history?' or `I am not going on a guilt trip.' When Maya Angelou, the renowned African-American writer and poet, came to Liverpool to open the first permanent exhibition in Britain on the Transatlantic Slavery, she said, `Guilt is about the most dangerous of emotions, it eats up the host, but does nothing for the problem. One should be sorry but never guilty for one's history.' Equally true for an individual or for a nation, is her oft quoted conviction, `History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.' The reality is that denial and ignorance of past evil helps to perpetuate wrong attitudes and actions in the present. Wrongs of the past, swept under the carpet, too often seep out to poison relations today. Unfaced and unrepented for, they continue to destroy human dignity, through discrimination, superior attitudes, insensitivity or indifference.

Personally, I will always be grateful that in my teens I was offered a precious gift--a sense of purpose, a vision for the world and for the future and an experience of personal liberation--I was not taught it, I caught it from the example of others who inspired me to experiment in taking time to listen to the inner voice. It led first to a belief that there is a divine purpose for me and every single person on this planet and that the individual choices we all make can help or hinder both ourselves and others in the fulfilment of that purpose. Second it resulted in a commitment to that purpose, wherever it might lead. What has that got to do with racism? It was absolutely clear to me when I returned from Africa and moved to Liverpool shortly after the 1981 disturbances that I must engage in making this country of ours a place where everyone, regardless of race or background, not only felt welcome and needed, but able to achieve their full potential without hindrance or discrimination.

I am convinced that it is the choices made by individuals that created racism and such choices that sustain it. It is the choices that we all make now and in years to come that will or will not put an end to it. Will we help others fulfil their potential and find a satisfying purpose, or through indifference and self-interest hamper and hinder them? It affects everything from educational expectations to job opportunities, the perpetuation or the dismantling of institutionalised racism, fair promotion policies or closed doors and glass ceilings. I have no illusions that without both vision and commitment on our part to bring the changes needed, it is future generations that will reap the tragic consequences of conflict.

Sir Conrad Hunte (quoted earlier), a descendent of slaves, has in recent years devoted himself to developing the sporting and life skills of young black teenagers in the townships of the new South Africa. He said just a few years ago, `The doors to the future we all long for are barred and blocked by unhealed wounds of the past. In order for all to go forward together as human beings there is a need for forgiveness of those who have suffered at the hands of the oppressors and there is a need for repentance of those of us who have caused the suffering. When forgiveness meets repentance, or the other way around, a new dynamic and creative synergy is released that the world has scarcely begun to tap. If we are ever to resolve our conflicts, personal, national and international, if we are ever to put right the wrongs that lead to war, we need to draw on that power.'

I would like to step back nearly 25 years in South Africa, to look at the issue from a different perspective. In 1976 while students in Soweto were protesting against Afrikaans-based education, Nelson Mandela was learning the language of his oppressors in prison. When asked why he should do such a thing, he remarked, `When I speak to my jailer in English, I speak to his head, but when I speak to him in Afrikaans, I speak to his heart.' Some at the time might have said he was going soft, that it was a betrayal of the cause. It certainly would not have been seen as politically correct on the streets of Soweto by the young militants. In hindsight we can say, `what incredible insight, heart power, vision and commitment'. Though in prison, Mandela had `a dream', a commitment and, though he might not have expressed it that way, he seemed to have that sense of divine purpose. That is surely why it was possible for him to say in his inaugural speech, despite all that he had suffered, `The time for healing the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.'

Personally I have learned that in order to have credibility you have to show commitment when engaged in working for justice and peace. You learn not as an observer, but as you go together on the road, where the stones are rough, and the vision is before you. I have been greatly reinforced by that sense of inner leading, especially when the going is tough. Sometimes I have worked in common cause with men and women who have a militancy and anger born out of suffering and mistrust. To be honest, at times I was scared to walk through the door of the office where they worked. Not because I feared for my safety, but because I feared what they thought of me. But I also knew that bound by fear I could not give my heart, could not think straight and would be of little use. So I would pray as I entered each time, `I cannot deal with this fear, God, please take it away.' By the time I was inside, I had lost it. I have also decided not to run away when I find people or situations difficult, but to walk towards them and open my heart wider. It is very liberating.

I believe that if each one of us pulls down the barricades in our hearts that divide us and clears the blockages in our lives that dull conscience and the promptings of that inner voice, we will see clearly to root out the realities of institutionalised racism and release us from the shackles of the past.

We will not have peace without justice. We will not have racial justice unless we dismantle both the barriers in our hearts and the blockages to fair and equal treatment in our institutions. It is not enough to have it in our mission statements. It requires a commitment from the top, it needs to be monitored and there need to be sanctions to make sure the policies are implemented, and, where appropriate, it requires training. There are good examples where all of these are happening, and it is worth finding out what they are and making them better known. In my own city, Liverpool, the company `Littlewoods' has given a lead. But there is still a long way to go here, and across the country.

The Lawrence Inquiry and Report is a challenge and an opportunity too important to miss, not just to spur people to action to cooperate in developing strategies to tackle racism, but to build a multi-cultural, multi-racial society that works.

I have not tried to give a road plan, point to a programme or campaign of action, or even indicate that I know what anyone should do. I have rather tried to give a context which may hopefully stir people to make right choices. What is your dream? What is your purpose? What is your commitment?

Gerald Henderson, UK

Last update: 2000-02-12 19:40:32 (EEST).
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